Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flying High

As promised, here are pics of me after I was dropped on the giant swing. Every once in a while we need to clear the cobwebs from our mind. Sending a massive jolt of adrenaline through the body accomplishes that quite nicely. Thanks to Amanda Volpe for use of the pics.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

At the end of Our Rope

Yesterday the entire staff of my school...teachers, administrators, support staff, all of us...did the ropes course at Georgetown College. The purpose of the course is problem solving and team building. I'm going to start by saying this was perhaps the best professional development in which I have ever participated as a teacher.

Why do I consider climbing around on logs and dropping 30 feet on a giant swing such a powerful experience? Some of the reasons are obvious, and some not so much.

For starters, the weather was absolutely gorgeous. When we met at 8:30, it was already in the mid-70's, breezy, and gloriously sunny. This weather marks a break in a long pattern this spring of rainy days in which the temp never climbed out of the 40's or low 50's. We knew our colleagues at our sister school were trapped in florescent rooms working on curriculum alignment and common assessments...a worthy goal, but somewhat soul-sucking on the first perfect Saturday of Spring. Nothing elevates morale like playing outside when the alternative is so much more obviously work.

We were divided into three groups, and we rotated through the different challenges the course offered. My group consisted of English teachers, world language teachers, the staff of the FMD room, and the dean of students. Some of the folks in my group I knew well, others not as much. When the Spanish teacher was dropped from the rope swing she let loose with a long string of something in Spanish. The dean of students (also a minister) hollered, "Oh lord, she's speaking in tongues!" When my friend Linda (not a minister) was dropped, she let loose with a string of English that was easily understandable and still makes me laugh when I think about it. At the end of one of the challenges, we had to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." My group continued to sing it at the end of each challenge just because. The day was just fun. How often do you have genuine fun with your co-workers?

Finally, the course itself was designed to force cooperative thinking. It was impossible to complete the tasks without each member of the group contributing in some way. I discovered talents I never knew my colleagues possessed. My fellow English teacher (and beta reader), Amanda, is wicked good at seeing patterns. I'm sad to say I sucked at that challenge, and it turns out it was a word pattern I wasn't getting. Mark and Zelma are mechanically inclined. They immediately figured out how to assemble a complicated contraption for grabbing things. I discovered some things about myself as well. I don't like heights, and in fact have been known to have panic attacks in high places. I let my team members haul me 30 feet off the ground, and then I released the dropping mechanism myself. I'm still not over the adrenaline rush.

The biggest lesson of the day is something all of us instinctively know, but need to be reminded of on occasion. We are not islands. We all need human interaction, if for no other reason than to do our jobs more effectively. Every problem is more easily solved with help. Teachers sometimes live on an island. When the bell rings and the classroom door closes, it's just us and the kids. We forget the person in the next classroom probably has the answer to whatever question is plaguing us. The same is true for my other vocation. Writers, by the very nature of their craft, exist on an island. We write alone. Ironically, without human interaction, we would have nothing about which to write. Nothing interesting anyway.

I'm going to post pictures of myself dangling from the end of a rope as soon as I get them from one of my colleagues, and I'm going to school tomorrow with a renewed appreciation for the people in the trenches with me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Real Life and Fiction Intertwined

It seems like this has been a year when I've said goodbye a lot. In December, I said goodbye to my best friend, Pam, when she was deployed to Iraq. We worked together and played together, and between the two, saw or talked to each other almost every day. She is the person who always has my back and listens to whatever is on my mind, and I do the same for her. On a warm spring weekend, if I wasn't at the ballpark with my kids, I was hanging out on her deck, chilling and solving the problems of the world. What's cool about our friendship is the fact that we don't always have the same world view (I'm pretty sure we didn't vote for the same guy in the last election), but we're able to have reasoned discussions about things, and ultimately it's not our differences that define us. If I pick up the phone and say, "I need help," I know that barring a deployment to the opposite side of the globe, she's going to be there. Shoot, she'd probably find a way to help me from Iraq if I really needed it.

On Friday, I said goodbye to another friend and colleague. He's originally from Oklahoma, and when his family had the opportunity to return, they took it. I don't begrudge him the new and exciting opportunities that await, but I really hate to see him go. His leaving seemed to punctuate Pam's absence, and I was in a funk all day Friday.

I had an epiphany this morning as I worked on my manuscript. I've struggled with the midsection of this book. I'm behind where I wanted to be at this stage of the process, and I think I've figured out why. I've mentioned before that it's very difficult for me to let my characters suffer, even when it's the right direction for the story. I realized this morning I might be fighting the conflict in my story because of the goodbye I've had to say in real life. The sadness over Pam's deployment is always there. I'm not walking around in a deep depression or anything. I have lots of good things in my life, but there is a gaping hole without her.

Ironically, the story has probably taken its direction from the existence of that hole, and I've been fighting its natural progression. I wrote a hard scene the last time I really worked on the story, and then I came to a grinding halt. I've blamed my work stoppage on external events in my life, and certainly they've played a role, but the real reason I've stopped is I don't want to write what comes next. Yesterday, I went back through my entire manuscript, about 60,000 words at this point. The next steps are clear, and I spent the morning outlining them. Now I've got to write it.

Writing is a wonderful, terrible process. At its best, it's exhilarating, an addictive natural high. At it's worst, it's gut-wrenching, bringing you face to face with your own inner demons. In the end, it's fiction. I talked to Pam on Skype early Saturday morning, and she's fine. She gets to come home for a couple of weeks in late June. That's real, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hope for the Future...or What Kids Can Do

I was inspired by Colleen Lindsay's blog in which she posted a book review by a 14 year old reader. As a teacher of this age student, I could see his age in his review, but I was impressed by his willingness to read widely and put himself out there for criticism by posting his review on a high-traffic blog. I think Max and students like him should give us all hope for the future.

I collaborate with a social studies teacher on a global issues unit. Students research a global issue, then create a documentary. Our school's technology resources are limited, but the students' creativity and concern for their topics are not. I've posted two documentaries below. One explains the crisis in Darfur better than many major news outlets. The second explains problems created by the global scarcity of clean water.

Both of these documentaries were written and produced entirely by high school freshmen.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Whiff of Kerosene

Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is required reading for my honors class. The premise of his novel is that books will not die with a bang, but with a whimper. People will quit reading, quit caring, and quit thinking, and very few will take note when the firemen show up to burn down their book-hoarding neighbor's house.

The firemen showed up this week in an unlikely place...retail book giant, Amazon. For those of you who haven't followed the controversy, a brief explanation is in order. Amazon assigns sales rankings to everything it sells. These sales ranking not only identify top-sellers on the site, but also provide the algorithm to conduct searches on Amazon. When an item on Amazon is stripped of its sales ranking, then it becomes invisible in Amazon's search engine unless you are specifically searching by author or title. On Sunday, the Internet exploded at the discovery of an insidious new policy at Amazon. The retail behemoth has stripped the sales ranking of anything that it deems "adult content." So unless you specifically search DH Lawrence or Lady Chatterly's Lover, you won't find it on Amazon.

Romance novels, books that provide help to rape victims, and most notably, almost everything with a gay or lesbian theme (including an analysis of the impact of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" on the military) have been stripped of their sales ranking. Still maintaining a sales ranking...A history of Playboy Centerfolds, the memoirs of several straight porn stars, and a wide variety of sex toys. Somehow the first group is considered "adult content" and the second group isn't.

Hello Firemen. Hello Censorship.

Initially, Amazon explained the policy as an attempt to keep offensive content from popping up in a search by an unsuspecting patron. You can almost smell the kerosene...hear Captain Beatty's voice. Amazon is saving us from ourselves. Later, after the great Easter Twitter/Blog explosion, Amazon backpedaled and called it a "glitch". As of this writing, there has been no apology. On Monday afternoon Amazon called the incident a "hamfisted cataloguing error" and began to reinstate the sales-ranking of some of the 57,000 titles affected.

The positive aspect to this story is the outcry from bookish people everywhere. We're not willing to watch the firemen burn, shrug, and go on about our business. Social media gives individuals a collective voice that is loud and far-reaching. And maybe the whole story isn't as sinister as I'm making it sound. Some have suggested this is not an intentional ploy to censor gay/lesbian content, but evidence that in a giant corporation, the left hand is often unaware of what the right hand is doing.

Either way, the power Amazon wields in publishing by virtue of its size is frightening. Stripping authors of their sales rankings cost them sales when potential readers didn't find them in a search. Even worse, readers' choices have been arbitrarily limited. And that is the very definition of censorship.

My Twitter friend Criss, has an extensive collection of links on her blog. So in the interest of not reinventing the wheel, here is the link to her blog.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rendering unto Caesar

Easter Sunday and I've spent the day completing our taxes. My mind is mush, but the job is done, and I feel like a monkey is off my back. I've had the information to crank out our returns for two months, but I've been avoiding them like the plague. I worked in accounting in a former life, and once a year I have unpleasant flashbacks when I do our taxes. As I was trudging downstairs to jack into the printer, I said to Bruce, "This is a day of my life I'll never get back."

I heard myself say that out loud, and it caused me to reflect. I've been making a conscious effort to be more positive lately. My family has had the misfortune to be in close contact with a very negative person recently, and I've watched the havoc he's wreaked on everyone he touches. Negativity is insidious, like a cancer. It can seep into a situation almost unnoticed, in a throwaway comment or eye-rolling gesture. One negative person can infect a whole room if allowed to persist unimpeded. I was at an event last week where the negativity exploded into a big ball of ugly. I'm still trying to spit the sour taste out of my mouth, and I was only an observer. I never want to play a part in creating that kind of bad energy, hence the effort to be more positive

To be more positive, I need to change my thinking. This is problematic because I've got a snarky streak a mile wide. As a general rule, I know the limits of appropriateness and know when to keep my mouth shut, but I'm queen of the smart-ass comment. Ask any of my friends...some of them might even tell you that's one of the things they like about me. Actually, I amuse myself with the inappropriate comments that roll through my brain, so changing my thinking is hard, but I'm trying.

Here's today's attempt...I spent a whole afternoon completing my taxes. I've rendered unto Caesar that which is his. In return for a day's effort, I have the other 364 to exercise my inalienable right to the pursuit of family, my classroom, and my manuscript.

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taking Responsibility

I'm reading a book by Todd Whitaker called What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things that Matter Most. Our staff is reading it for a professional development book study. Like most books that give advice to teachers, it all seems obvious, but I am enjoying it. It's well-written, and unlike many would-be gurus in education, Whitaker chooses straight talk over jargon. His platform is credible as well. Teachers aren't interested in education books by academics who have never taught outside the hallowed halls of a university. Whitaker speaks from his experience in the trenches.

I chose to blog about the book because its major tenet can be applied to my writing as well. Whitaker focuses on 14 specific points, but they all come back to the same idea. The only thing teachers really control is our own actions. We can't control which students come into our classroom, what skills they bring or lack, what parents they have, the resources we get, the funding or lack thereof, who we work with, how many students we get at a time, etc, etc, etc. We can control our attitude, our effort, and our interactions. Whitaker tells teachers to take responsibility for those things, and more often than not we'll be successful. At the very least, we will feel better.

Having read all the brouhaha last week regarding #agentfail, it seems to me writers are in much the same boat. We don't control anything in the publishing process beyond our effort, our attitude, and our interactions. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Shaking your fist at the heavens (or anonymously at literary agents) will not get you published. Be better. Work harder. Hone your craft, and for Pete's sake, treat people with respect. As Whitaker says in his book, we may have a thousand positive interactions with a person, but it is the one negative one we will remember.

I know that last statement sounds trite and cliched, but my own experience in the classroom tells me it's true. experience in life tells me it's true. I'm no PollyAnna. I have my fair share of rejection letters, but I know all I can control is my effort, my attitude, and my interactions. Acknowledging that is liberating. It puts me in the driver's seat.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sharks and Coconuts

Random thoughts as I prepare to go back to work tomorrow. The first day my boys had at the beach in Florida there was a shark sighting. They spent the rest of the week looking at the ocean instead of swimming in it. Do you know you have a greater chance of being killed by a falling coconut than by a shark? It's true. An average of 500 people are killed every year by falling coconuts, far more than are killed by sharks. The moral of this bizarre fact? The things you fear in life, the things that are holding you back, keeping you from amazing experiences are not the things that will get you. It's that coconut you never see coming.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rocket's Red Glare

Today was a good day. My fourteen year old has been hassling me to take him to the Kennedy Space Center for each of the three years we've come to Cocoa Beach for baseball. I've never been excited about giving up my limited beach time, but this year I relented. I'm so glad I did. We experienced a simulated shuttle launch, saw several interesting films, toured the original mission control for the Apollo/Saturn program, and took a bus tour. The Atlantis is already on the launch pad for her upcoming mission in May, so that was cool to see. Also on the launch pad was the unmanned rocket that launched earlier this evening to deploy a satellite of some sort. The picture I took of the rocket on the launch pad didn't turn out that great, but oh the launch pictures. Way cool.

The beach was crowded when Connor and I went out, but we found us a nice spot and parked ourselves on beach towels. The moon was out tonight so it wasn't nearly as dark as it was on Sunday night. The atmosphere was festive. Everyone was excited to see the launch. Most of us had never seen one before. We were entertained by a couple of gentlemen from New York as we waited. I love New Yorkers. They have such a colorful way of expressing themselves. "It's a f'n rock concert out here." And it was.
At exactly 8:32 on the dot, the sky to the north turned orange. The hotels and condos in that direction were bathed in the flaming glow. If we hadn't known better, we might have thought several of them had blown up. The only thing missing was the mushroom cloud. The rocket rose above the orange haze and seemed to hang for just a moment, as if gravity would win and pull it back to earth. Then it was streaking upward and out to sea. A full ten seconds later we heard the rumbling, booming roar trying in vain to catch up with the engines that created it. We watched until it was a tiny pinprick in the sky, and then we watched it disappear into space.

Humanity is capable of amazing feats. We can literally break the bonds that hold us to this planet and reach beyond to the unknown.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sunshine and Darkness

I spent my morning on a deck overlooking the ocean, finishing Keri Arthur's Deadly Desire. I give it two thumbs up. Riley Jensen works on two cases in this installment, and I enjoyed the artful way Arthur wove them together. The ending was terrific. I can't say much with out spoilers, so I'll just say Riley ends up in a delicious romantic pickle. The next book is scheduled for a September release. I'll be the first in line. Karen Chance's Embrace the Night is next up for my beach reading.

The urge to write has been riding me hard, but there are no outdoor power sources for my laptop, and I refuse to stay inside very long. I actually wrote this blog entry longhand on the pool deck and am only typing it as I take a quick respite from the sun.

Sunday night I took a late night walk on the beach with my younger son. We spent the day at the baseball expo for a double-header, then dinner with a group of friends, and it wasn't until 11pm that we finally returned to the hotel. We were both itching to put our toes in the ocean, so out we went. There are no lights on the beach, and once you cross the dune and get 100 feet or so away from the hotel, it's very dark. No moon that night offered any natural light, only stars. A few other people shared the beach with us, but the only evidence was the occasional glimpse of movement and their muted voices underneath the wind and crash of waves.

The stars were brilliant, and we picked out Orion and the Big Dipper. I grew up on a farm, away from the city, but now live in the suburbs. It's been a very long time since I've seen stars like that. True darkness is hard to come by when you live in proximity to a town or city. This was true darkness. Except for a flash of foam here and there, even the ocean was invisible. The night wrapped itself around us until there was nothing left but the stars and the wind and the crash of the sea. My romantic writer's soul stirred to life, and I have the beginnings of an entirely new story pinging around in my head.

The idea is growing, knawing at me, but as of yet, I've resisted the urge to give it words. I'm letting it simmer, letting the pressure build, so that when I do release the valve and write, I will have some steam. I am a tangle of contradiction (but aren't we all, really). I love the sun. Being in Florida has renewed my spirit. The long, cold winter in my florescent classroom tends to beat it down. But as much as the warm sunshine fills me with a sense of joy, it is the darkness that captures my imagination.